"After Maria's" Backlash And The 7 Tips To A Well-Rounded Doc

I just watched the documentary “After Maria” and I feel a combination of rage, sadness, and well… get ready for a rant… but know that is not entirely impulsive, or so I hope.

Let’s start by mentioning that the piece should have been called “FEMA sends Already-Accustomed-to-Federal-Aid Puertorricans To The United States After Maria”… My point is that the film is focused on a very specific part of what happened to some families after Hurricane Maria. The interviewees sure had their struggles by loosing their home and having to live six months in a Bronx hotel, but the lack of context of the documentary is what has people raging in social media. There is no real sense of what happened inside the island,  the struggles, the joys…; of what happened to other families that did flourish outside Puerto Rico; there is no exploration of why the portrayed families felt entitled to the federal help which has to do so much with the colonial relationship between the two countries… There needs to be proper representation, explanation, coverage… 

“The documentary is nothing more than the creative treatment of reality. In this way, the assembly of sequences must include not only the description and the rhythm, but the commentary and dialogue.” - John Grierson

The film aired on Netflix las week. This large platform counts with about 130 million subscribers and is seen in over 180 countries - of course locals are outraged - the documentary does not do justice to what was lived. By giving an incomplete message, the resulting piece is erroneous and misinformative. It feeds on the stereotype of the dependent puertorrican that lives from the government. To put it in perspective, think it this way: someone omits a truth to you and they say it’s not a lie, yet you are mad, offended… That’s pretty much wats going on here.

“A country without documentary filmmaking is like a family without a photo album.” - Patricio Guzman.

I don’t pretend to tell you to not watch it, like many are asking, all I ask is to have this very clear: the portrait of the families in the film are valid, but so is the story of the many others; the hard workers, the innovators, the vandals… The struggle for survival, lack of commodities…. Man, so much happened…. (read my experience to learn more), and I know its not easy to find the thread that helps reveal the story little by little, but that is part of it; documentaries are an exploration.

“You know, the process of making a documentary is one of discovery, and like writing a story, you follow a lead and that leads you to something else and then by the time you finish, the story is nothing like you expected.” - William Shatner.

Documentary filmmaking is a working process. We are all learning new things as we go and I am sure that no matter the many years in “the business” we’ll still be learning to make documentaries. So, with all that’s going on - what makes a well-rounded documentary? The answer to such inquiry like in most creative fields is the story. It’s the single component that the film lies upon. Once a story is identified the filmmaker must compose it accurately. And because accurate is a tricky subject, it should be treated with upmost sensibility. Stories have a special way of putting us inside other people - in their shoes… 

Shoes memorialize victims of Hurricane Maria.  (Canon 5D mark 2; 24-105 mm F4)

Shoes memorialize victims of Hurricane Maria.

(Canon 5D mark 2; 24-105 mm F4)

Here are 7 Quick Tips to creating a well-rounded documentary:

  1. Remain impartial and be open minded. 

    • Your theories and ideas will change. Learn to adjust.

  2. Characters require a voice. 

    • Make sure you are getting multiple perspectives, specially if you don’t agree. Remember that, depending on your style, characters can be inanimate objects too. 

  3. Raise more questions than answers! 

    • Again, documentaries are a process of discovery.

  4. Films tell the truth even if the subjects don’t.

    • Taking an anthropological approach will help put this into practice.

  5. High quality gear is not always a must have (or can have), but is a good plus. 

    • Priority goes to sound over visuals, if you have to choose. People are more likely to view a low quality video than listen to something that hurts their ears.

  6. Archival footage is your friend.

    • Sometimes this is one of the most powerful tools to help guide the story.

  7. Sound sets a tone, use it wisely, don’t over work it.

    • Music, sound effects, sound design - it all should help you convey an emotion not force people to feel a certain way. 

“ I am not Michael Moore. I think Michael Moore wants you to think how to think. He wants you to give you answers. I make movies to raise my own personal questions and not to give answers.” - Michael Moore.

Hurricane Maria’s effect on Puerto Rico brought many filmmakers and journalists - some opportunists others came with genuine intent to tell their interpretation. And the matter is that the public has no control over it - the stories they produced some that a few managed to see, still bring outrage. Heck, the media did a lot of sensationalism, but we were too preoccupied with living day to day - surviving. The difference now is that we can do what we couldn’t before - we have internet, we have a voice. So, now that we are slowly, but surely getting back on our feet, it so happens that “After Maria” gets backlashed. 

I think in part this is because, we are still dealing with events after Maria. Hurricane Maria brought to surface and worsened the foundation in which Puerto Rico operates. There are still power outages, inconsistencies with water supply, economic inequality, unemployment… Sure a lot has bettered, specially for tourism and we are glad for it, but the arduous work towards a stable country remains questionable.

No one is happy; the radio, the tv, podcasts all have something to say about the documentary. Of course people feel it very deeply, the traumas endured - families burying families in their own backyards… over 2,500 deaths… there is so much that still resonates. Even when I see footage from the hurricane or it’s aftermath I get shaken; my eyes tear-up, my throat tightens, and my chest gets heavy. The reality is that the damages after the storm will take years to recuperate from.

Nadia Hallgren, the director of the film, chose to focus on one situation, a small part in the large sum of events, and it must be recognized as such. I appreciate her eagerness to create something, empowered by her puertorrican descendance, but I just hope that that motivator becomes the start of a bigger journey to uncover all aspects of the story. That spark within her soul is meant to thrive in a campfire and not die on a match. 

It’s clear that there is no way of creating a documentary with every possible angle and I know that every work is done with the vision and decision of the filmmaker…. but truth (all of it!) and creativity are key to telling a proper message effectively. 

I hope that Hallgren and Netflix take this opportunity to open doors to other filmmakers from the island, to open the conversation, so the story can be complete and fair. Many of the filmmakers from the exterior had, not only the resources to create content, but they also had the commodities to produce and lobby opportunities for distribution, while the filmmakers in the island where both documenting and seeking shelter. So, no wonder why their perspective has a stronger roar and is in the spotlight.

“Every time you are getting ready to make a shot in a documentary film, you are asking yourself questions about your cinematographic approach. You are approaching the truth, but the image is never the truth itself”. - Rithy Panh

I am glad of the growing recognition Candle Light, by Verónica Ortiz-Calderón, is having.

It is obvious the island seeks for well-rounded and uplifting stories. I would like to encourage more filmmakers to share their angles, their visions, their films. Who knows, we could call it #ouraftermaria. And I am well aware of the lack of resources there are. Heck, I am still working on sharing what I filmed - just last weeks was I able to get a proper editing system (blog post about building the computer coming soon), yet I know we can and will make it happen. Puerto Rico deserves a proper [documentary] album, one that is not imposed or dictated by inaccuracy, one that serves as a window to our past and also an open door to our possibilities, hopes, dreams, and continuous thrive.

“I think what I love about documentary prices is that you bring yourself to the documentary. And hopefully that makes you ask good questions, and hopefully that makes you reveal a little about yourself as well” - Soledad O Brien.

Subject Through The Lens

Subject Through The Lens

As a documentary cinematographer, I am not only responsible for the look of an image, I am also responsible for capturing the puzzle pieces to a full fledged story. This means that I must be alert and prepared to select, on the spot, visuals for an everchanging narrative. With so much unpredictability and adaptability, how can one know that what’s being captured is right?

A New Year's Hope for Sustainability

 A New Year's Hope for Sustainability

I hope that this new year sets the stage with ideas and efforts that re-build a stronger and “smarter” community. Puerto Rico's power grid should be updated, in a more resilient, and not dependent on expensive, polluting imports. With solutions like electricity by gravity, roof tops able to harvest rain (like in Bermuda) ,and educational efforts on the subject, we can amend our effects on the environment and thus our livelihood.